I really like the feel of a detailed, rich setting for superhero games. I’ve talked about it before but I’ve been thinking about it again as I listened to the awesome podcast Protean City Comics. Their worldbuilding episode is a really fun listen and it got me thinking about the best way collaboratively create a world of superheroes.
Before we go into specifics, there’s a common piece of advice throughout all of these books and resources: start where you want to be. This is both obvious and counter-intuitive but when you are making a history for your game (regardless of genre) you want to start off by talking about the game itself. Do you want to have a politically divided United States? Well you better get that down up front and work that into your history. Do you want to have some older heroes for your characters to look up to or revile? That also needs to be part of your worldbuilding. Start from the present (for your game) and work backwards.
Use Signal Light As a Start
The hack of Microscope by the podcasters at Stop, Hack, and Roll (the parent-podcast for Protean City Comics) is the best way I’ve heard of to start out. First of all, Microscope is a great RPG and an excellent resource for worldbuilding, and the modifications in Signal Light for the superhero genre are great. In a nutshell, you each take turns being the “Lens” and establishing a “Focus” that you will build on. The Focus might be “Nemeses” or “Cosmic Stories” or “Sidekicks” or whatever else you like. The rest of the people at the table take turns putting setting elements on the table that are tied to that Focus. In Signal Light those elements can be Masks and Faces (the supers and normals who populate the city/world), Organizations (both good and bad), Covers (the seminal moments in history), and Locations (from the mundane to the grand).
Once you’ve gone around the table a few times you have a fun, organic setting that includes everyone’s interests. The elements go on the table in eras, something that participants establish in Microscope but which in Signal Light are the Gold, Silver, Bronze, and Modern ages of comics. With this approach you create the sort of setting that you want to play in, the type of superhero stories that you like. While the medium of comics has been prone to sexism, racism, silly retcons, and other issues, you can leave in or take out whatever parts you like in order to create a setting that everyone at the table feels comfortable with. Which actually leads me to…
Use the Colors of Wild Talents for Tone
In Wild Talents, the esteemed authors (including Dennis Detwiller, Greg Stolze, Kenneth Hite, and Shane Ivey who are independently awesome and collective mind-blowing) have put together an awesome system for setting expectations in superhero games. Thematically, it’s based off the classic four-color ink model for comic books. Each of these colors is tied to a particular theme, called “axes of design,” which you can turn up or down from 1 to 5.
- Red represents Historical Inertia. Basically this is a play between how much impact any particular person can have on world history. Low-Red settings are more dominated by the Great Man Theory of history while High-Red settings are less dominated by it. This means that Low-Red settings have dramatically different histories thanks to the appearances of superhumans while High-Red settings are more or less the same.
- Gold represents Talent Inertia. How do people view people with superpowers? Low-Gold settings have superpowered people in every rung of society, from superstrong atheletes to politicians that can fly. High-Gold settings are the opposite: if you have superpowers you are either a hero or a villain. In some High-Gold settings the corner that superpowered individuals occupy is something else (hunted freaks, worshipped gods, living weapons) but it also stays the same through history.
- Blue represents the Lovely and the Pointless, aka the Weirdness. In a Low-Blue setting there are strange, superpowered people and that’s about it. Super people are mutants or experiments or magical beings and they’re the only weird thing in the world (or nearly). On the other hand, High-Blue settings have everything under the sun. When you talk about alien invasions people say “Which one?” There might be alternate Earths, artificial islands, Moon nations, and anything else you can think of.
- Black represents Moral Clarity. Basically, Low-Black settings are morally ambiguous (the hallmark of Bronze Age like the Punisher or Cable) while High-Black settings are starkly divided between good and evil (for early Gold Age versions of Superman and radio serials like the Shadow or the Lone Ranger). This doesn’t need to be the morality of your setting forever but it should be the reality for the time you’re planning to play in.
As the authors note, “raising all four of them together, by happy chance, replicates the traditional ‘Silver Age’ feel of, well, four-color superhero comic books.” They also aren’t static: most of the published Wild Talents settings will shift over time as more and more weirdness enters the world (raising the Blue metric) and as history drifts more and more over time (lowering the Red metric). This is all part of the “start where you want to be” advice we started with. You should set the axes of design where you want them to be for your game’s present and then think about any big shifts for those metrics in the past.
Use Venture City for Plot Hooks
Most GMs will have plans for their games before collaborative worldbuilding ever starts, and they will likely think up some as the table works together. However, they shouldn’t be expected to all the work and they shouldn’t make this only “their” game. Share the plot hook building around! The Fate setting Venture City has a nice, succinct approach to filling your game with plot hooks in the form of factions, places, and people. There are Fate mechanics tied into this approach but you don’t really need to worry about those if you’re using another system.
Places are major locations in your setting that the characters might visit, big or small. This could be the U.N. (if that’s a big part of things) and your city’s government building and it could include your heroes’ favorite greasy spoon diner. Likewise, people are the important figures to your story from personal friends and family members to prominent politicians and evil masterminds. Factions are also pretty self-explanatory: the criminal groups, heroic leagues, and extended families that affect your characters’ lives.
Now comes the useful part. Every one of these setting elements has some bullet points underneath that give you Instant Story™.
- Places have issues, problems that are just waiting to be solved by the PCs or someone else.
- People have agendas, things that they want to make happen or that they want to prevent. More minor people have other people that they support.
- Factions have slogans and secrets. The slogan is their public persona while the secret is their hidden goals, which may be in line with their slogan or way out of whack.
Do you have to follow up on all of these plot hooks? No, not at all. In a sandbox-style campaign players can choose which factions to investigate, which places’ issues to solve, and which peoples’ agendas to counter. If they ignore some, maybe the danger advances. On the other hand, you might concentrate on a particularly plotline and have other heroes, civic law enforcement, or some other force dealing with in the background. This gives the feel of a living city or parallel comic book titles (depending on your outlook). Happily, it also fits right into the Microscope framework of Signal Light that we discussed above.
If you have access to these books, I say you break them all out and use every tool in your box. If you don’t have these books, don’t worry about it since you can use what’s written here as a rudimentary fix for them. If you don’t care for what’s written here then that’s totally fine. I just want to encourage people to work collaboratively and with detail to make rich superhero settings. If you do use what’s written here, I’m very interested in knowing how it goes!